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Just days ahead of its annual VMworld conference in San Francisco, VMware has announced new versions of its consumer desktop virtualization solutions for Windows and Mac OS X, both with improved support for Windows 8.

VMware Workstation 9, which the company announced on Thursday, has been optimized for running on Windows 8 host PCs, in addition to making it easier to install and run Windows 8 in virtual machines.

While previous versions of Workstation required a complex set of steps to get Windows 8 virtual machines up and running, the new version includes an Easy Install script tailored for Redmond's latest OS, and Windows virtual machines now start up faster.

VMware has also improved Workstation's Unity mode, which allows applications running in virtual machines to appear on the host desktop as if they were running natively on the local OS, so that Metro-style Modern UI apps for the Windows 8 Start Screen integrate seamlessly with desktop applications.

Adding to the Windows 8 love, Workstation 9 includes support for USB 3.0 in Windows 8 virtual machines, as well as full multi-touch support – because we all know how annoying to some the new OS can be without a touch interface.

VMware says it has made "significant" improvements in Workstation 9's 3D graphics performance and rendering, and support has been added for OpenGL 2.1 for Linux virtual machines. Users who don't constantly walk the cutting edge will be pleased to hear that it also includes an improved graphics driver for Windows XP.

Workstation 9 also adds a new remote desktop capability, which allows users to access and interact with virtual machines using any modern web browser, without the need for any plugins. VMware says that means you'll even be able to access your virtualized PC desktops from smartphones, though your Reg hack has a hard time seeing how that's practical.

The latest product refresh also introduces the concept of restricted virtual machines. With Workstation 9, a virtual machine can be configured to require a password on launch and another password to change its settings, allowing administrators to distribute VMs to users without worrying that they'll wreck things.

Only the latest versions of VMware's desktop virty products will support running restricted VMs, including Workstation 9, Fusion 5, and VMware Player 5.

Last but not least, VMware has finally completed the circle with its integration of VMware Workstation with its vSphere data center product line. When Workstation 8 debuted in 2011, El Reg found it odd that you could drag a VM from your Workstation library to a server running an ESXi hypervisor in the data center, but not the other way around. With Workstation 9, it works both ways.

A Mountain Lion/Windows 8 love fest

Also announced on Thursday was VMware Fusion 5, the company's desktop virty package for Mac OS X. The new version includes many of the same Windows 8 optimizations as Workstation 9, but adds a number of new tweaks designed to take advantage of OS X 10.8, aka "Mountain Lion."

Performance enhancements were a major focus of this release. In addition to 3D graphics improvements similar to those found in Workstation 9, VMware says the new version of Fusion offers up to 40 per cent faster performance for virtual machines, compared to earlier versions of the product.

Fusion 5 also adds support for the latest Mountain Lion technologies, including USB 3.0, better support for Macs with 16GB or more of RAM, searching for Windows programs in Launchpad, using AirPlay Mirroring to stream Windows applications to HDTVs, and support for the Mountain Lion notifications center.

Hawk-eyed fanbois will also be pleased to note that Fusion 5 has been optimized for Retina Displays.

In addition to the basic version of Fusion 5, VMware offers Fusion Professional, which adds a few additional features. Most notably, it includes the ability to create restricted virtual machines, which was also introduced in Workstation 9. It also bundles a commercial license to distribute VMware Player, as does Workstation.

The new versions of the Mac and Windows products are available immediately. VMware Workstation 9 retails for $249, although customers with Workstation 7 and 8 licenses are eligible to upgrade for $119, and customers who bought Workstation 8 in August get the upgrade for free. 

VMware Fusion 5 goes for $49.99. There is no upgrade pricing for this edition, although customers who bought VMware Fusion 4 after July 25, 2012 are eligible for a free upgrade. Owners of VMware Fusion 3 or 4 licenses might also opt to spend their $49.99 on an upgrade to VMware Fusion 5 Professional, however, which normally sells for $99.99. ®

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